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Two senators warned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday that U.S. diplomatic power is being dismantled on his watch, and they urged him to reverse course before America’s leadership role in the world is further degraded.
In a letter to Tillerson, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said a hiring freeze in effect since late January at the State Department has almost halted the influx of new foreign service officers. Shutting off the intake of entry-level officers will inevitably lead to shortages of experienced personnel in the future, they said.
Promotion rates for senior foreign service officers have decreased dramatically over the last year, according to their letter, which also cited falling numbers of career ambassadors and career ministers. “The failure to replace losses from the ranks of the Foreign Service due to attrition and resignations with promotions and the recruitment of new entry-level officers appears to be intended to reduce staffing levels,” the senators said.
Tillerson is overseeing an overhaul of the department’s unwieldy bureaucracy. The State Department has rebuffed previous criticisms of the ongoing “redesign effort,” arguing that the sprawling agency has never before undergone a comprehensive, employee-led review of how it operates.
The department has challenged several of the sky-is-falling statistics that are repeated in the letter from McCain and Shaheen. For example, the claim that number of career ambassadors has dropped by 60 percent is a “misleading description,” according to a State Department statement from last week. In January, there were five career ambassadors. Three have since retired, leaving two, which “is within the historical norms.”
The department said once several dozen promotions are approved by Congress there will be just over 1,000 foreign service officers – a number nearly identical to the total a year ago.
Aside from the numbers, McCain and Shaheen said questionable management practices, the attitudes of certain but unnamed Trump administration officials on the value of diplomacy, declining morale, and other negative factors “paint a disturbing picture.”
“America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex, global crises are growing externally,” they wrote.
They said the decisions Tillerson and his team are making “will not only degrade the United States’ leadership role in the world,” but will also affect U.S. citizens who rely on foreign service officers to keep them safe while traveling overseas and apprise them of manmade or natural disasters.
McCain is chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Shaheen is the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations subcommittee on State Department management.
Tillerson and President Donald Trump have also faced criticism from lawmakers and advocacy groups for proposing to cut the State Department budget by billions of dollars long before the review and reorganization was complete. Trump, according to the critics, is simultaneously pushing for a sharp increase in the Pentagon’s budget, signaling diplomacy is far less important to him than military might.
Sen. Bob Corker, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman and one of Tillerson’s staunchest supporters, told reporters Tuesday the department isn’t being well run. “The State Department as you know is not functioning particularly well, I hate to say,” Corker said. “They’re undermanned.”